12. Will and mind
By now a few nagging questions must be calling ever louder. If the human mind is at the forefront of life’s evolutionary incarnation through matter yet can go astray so “easily,” then is its design fatally flawed and, if not, what can get it back on track? If the problem is within, then what is left to see and act differently? And if help must come from the outside, then what else exists to provide that help? To answer we need to investigate the relationship between mind and will, which we have skimmed over until now.
The mechanism of identification that creates the false concept of self is clear enough. Now we need to look at how this self acts. Evolution has produced a brain sufficiently complex to allow for the emergence of a conscious mind. But what exactly is this? We must acknowledge up front that we cannot realistically expect the rational-analytical part of our being to analyze the source of its ability to analyze. Even more than the archetypal paradox of the snake eating its tail, this might be the tail trying to eat the snake. But we can learn from how the mind functions.
One thing we might want to recall is the mind’s capacity to work on its own, with no “conscious” direction from us. We have already mentioned several instances of this — dreams, times when we seem to respond to situations without thinking things through, the non-volitional functions of our body such as breathing, etc. All of these seem to confirm that our will is not identical with our mind. In particular, the non-volitional functions might indicate even more.
Can you will yourself to stop breathing? With sufficient resolve you might be able to hold your breath until you lose consciousness, but that is as far as you can go. Something else takes control and ensures that breathing resumes. Far from being master of the known universe, when push comes to shove, your self-conscious mind loses out to your unconscious mind. It is, at best, second in command. We tend to disregard the non-volitional part of our mind, since it functions so steadily and unobtrusively, but our bodies are no simple machines. The complexity of the processes and functions needed to keep us alive, let alone grow and reproduce, is staggering. It is little wonder that many meditation techniques focus on “following” one’s breathing.
It can be argued, of course, that the body is still a machine, however complex; that consciousness is not involved. So let’s recall our definition of consciousness as a quality or state of being aware that involves perceiving or apprehending. Does the unconscious mind perceive or apprehend? Clearly it does. Even if you disregard the constant physiological adjustments going on – heart and breathing rates, sweat – we have the example of dreams, which our unconscious mind assembles, often from fragments of recent experience. I can also go back to the times driving along that winding road when I could go for quite long stretches with no conscious awareness of steering the car. This was hardly an unconscious activity, but neither was it a self-conscious one. My will was not directing my arms to turn the wheel and my foot to accelerate or decelerate, but obviously I was aware and responding to the environment.
Our mind, of course, can program our brain to do repetitive tasks without conscious intervention. This is the nature of much learning, or why you will put the same leg in pants first or the same shoe on first when getting dressed without necessarily even knowing which one. (John Lilly presented a detailed schema for this in his Programming and Metaprogramming in the Human Biocomputer.) Even so, there has to be a programmer, so to speak. You can point to programs that write programs, but these have themselves been devised by human minds. Is it enough to say that a Creator created the human mind with this self-programming capacity? It would be, had modern humans suddenly appeared on the planet one day. But the reality is that this capacity has evolved and been refined in the human brain over hundreds of thousands of years.
I would venture there is not one person who has ever thought about our self-programming potential who has not wished s/he could control this marvelous ability. Would it not be wonderful if we could replace the drivel that repetition has stuck securely in our memory – advertising jingles, songs we remember all the better for having disliked them greatly – with information we wish to remember? Why can’t we do this? Naturally no answer is forthcoming, but I think we can see why it might not be such a good idea after all. If we could reprogram at will, what would stop us from accidentally overwriting the neural circuits that control breathing or the beating of our heart?
Maybe it is only a matter of time and evolution before we learn how to program ourselves more effectively without literally killing ourselves. For now, the point is that no matter how you look at it, there is a high-level intelligence at work in each of us that is not under the control of our will and that overrides our will if necessary to insure our physical survival. That it functions in this way is proof enough that this control center perceives and reacts. You might be tempted to think of it as “unconscious,” but clearly it is very conscious. It simply is not volitional, not under the control of our will. We need to be more discriminating in our use of the word unconscious.
The fact that consciousness has at least two parts or aspects, the volitional and non-volitional, is certainly no new insight. What we are doing, however, is extending the non-volitional aspect to include times when our rational-analytic faculties are working outside the control of our will, and are directed outside our physical self. These include the examples I mentioned earlier – moments of what we might call intuitive action in an emergency situation, in sports or in music. A high-level intelligence is at work, but the awareness directing it is not our usual self-awareness. And it is not limited to exceptional circumstances.
We actually acknowledge the reality better than we might think in expressions that are part of daily speech. We say we get “lost in thought,” or conversely speak of “coming back” to ourselves afterward. You might say this without thinking it has any real meaning, but let’s look a bit closer at what goes on even in mundane situations. This involves looking closer at our self-built identity.
Very early on, we get the ball rolling by repeatedly identifying with the thoughts and memories experienced directly through our individual bodies and brains. We have looked at this as well as at the macro-extensions of this through identification with family and friends, or grander constructs such as nations and religions. But we have not considered things at the micro level.
If our self-identity is built from our memories and experiences, then it is in a state of constant flux. We continually add to our storehouse. It is also logical to conclude that things are forgotten and drop out, but too often we find that things we have given no thought to for a long time, even years, are very much still with us. And it is not necessary to puzzle over this here. Our collection of memories changes all the time. Is there any evidence that our self-identity does the same?
At first glance it might seem that our self-identity remains rather constant, and perhaps it does, but we need to push a little harder. For one thing, we do a remarkably god job of arranging our lives and environments when we can. As creatures of comfort, we surround ourselves with what we like, or, barring that, at least what is familiar. This cuts down on the energy we need to expend to deal with situations that are new and uncertain, since uncertainty produces that undesirable state known as anxiety. By limiting what we expose ourselves to, we naturally decrease the chances of having experiences that provoke any significant rethinking of who we are. Nonetheless, we do notice significant change over longer time intervals. The establishment-challenging teen becomes a more cautious parent, a person who seldom takes chances meets a lively partner and learns to cut loose.
I don’t think any of us would argue that such changes happen suddenly one day, like a switch being thrown. They ordinarily seem to happen little by little over time. Then again, more sudden changes are possible. We even refer to certain dramatic happenings as “life-changing” experiences. “Self-changing” is perhaps more to the point. And these need not be imposed, as through war, natural disaster or other personal tragedies. A person can come in contact with the suffering of others and end up committing to some form of social or religious work. And it works the same in the opposite direction. Someone could come in contact with a luxurious way of living and end up abandoning things or people who once were important to pursue this new goal.
That many of us lead unexciting and even predictable lives that seem to change very little from day to day can make it appear that our self-identities are relatively stable. But let’s not confuse probability with reality. Our self-identities change all the time. It’s just that usually the change is negligible. In fact, every new experience or thought has the potential to change who we are. Put more properly, it can make who we are different from who we were. Here I think we can peel away the last layer of the onion and look dispassionately at the empty space within. Memories are not now; they are then. Our self-identities, constructed from our accumulated memories, belong entirely to the past. Not only are they illusory, but they are no more than the most recent summation of our past.
This is most important. We are forced to conclude that the individual self is and can only be a creature of the past. It contains nothing of the present, which our brains must first process and store as memories. It can have a huge effect on the present if we let it, but to the extent that it does we are acting out of our past and not fully in the present. And this is not always a bad thing. Acting out of a past memory that fire burns is less painful and much safer than waiting until we get burned each time before taking proper protective measures. Learning too builds on the past. But life happens in the present. Awareness is of the present, as is love, life’s awareness of its unity.
This is a most powerful insight, because it negates any sense of our being “the way we are.” Habits might be hard to break, some of them very hard, but the only thing that “defines” an individual life to any extent is biological makeup. This does not change, although we left open the possibility that the mind has undeveloped powers that could affect even physical existence and produce “miracles.” Our identity, however, who we think we are, could change in an instant. We are products of our past exactly to the extent that we don’t think we are anything else. Let go of that illusion, and you are someone new every time you think about it.
Every time you wake up, every time you “come back to yourself” from a daydream or some deep concentration, you are actually different from the person you were beforehand, the last time your mind did the calculation. For all practical purposes, that person has died, no longer exists. At any moment you could step out of your past as from a cocoon, as different from who you were as a butterfly from a caterpillar. Others might not acknowledge the change, at least not immediately, but the only thing that stops you from doing it is illusion and the force of habit. (Without going off on a tangent, the strange but common human habit of talking to oneself makes more sense if the hearer is not the exact same person as the speaker, and this is indeed the case, since hearing comes after speaking, which in fact comes slightly after we have formulated what we will say.)
How can we reconcile that experience takes place only in the present with a reality in which our self-identity is in the past, like the dead coral on which the living coral grows? It is not hard to see the way forward as long as we realize that our will, or better to call it our self-will, is only a part of our mind, the part that has gotten sidetracked in self-identity. The rest of our mind operates either involuntarily, managing our bodily apparatus, or out of some other state, for which the undifferentiated reality of consciousness as life becoming aware of itself is certainly a candidate. So we operate on more than one level. The critical question, then, is to what extent self-will dominates our mind, whether the brutal logic that equates temporary physical existence with the consciousness that operates through it speaks so loudly that we cannot hear the music of the spheres.